By Timothy Keller, Special to CNN
(CNN)–When I was diagnosed with cancer, the question “Why me?” was a natural one.
Later, when I survived but others with the same kind of cancer died, I also had to ask, “Why me?”
Suffering and death seem random, senseless.
The recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings — in which some people were spared and others lost — is the latest, vivid example of this, but there are plenty of others every day: from casualties in the Syria uprising to victims of accidents on American roads. Tsunamis, tornadoes, household accidents - the list is long.
As a minister, I’ve spent countless hours with suffering people crying: “Why did God let this happen?” In general I hear four answers to this question. Each is wrong, or at least inadequate.
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The first answer is “I guess this proves there is no God.” The problem with this thinking is that the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God.
Actually, no one has to prove there is no God. You can't prove a negative. It is on the faithful to prove there IS a God.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that if there was no higher divine law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust. Likewise, if there is no God, then why do we have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? The strong eat the weak, there is no meaning, so why not?
If it takes higher laws to validate lower laws then how is there not an infinite progression of higher and higher laws? Also, the argument assumes that there SHOULD be meaning but who said that was true? Maybe there is no universal meaning to all of this but each person finds his own or not. The argument crumbles then.
Friedrich Nietzsche exemplified that idea. When the atheist Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two-hundred-thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!”
Because there is no God, Nietzsche said, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament.
My Take: This is where God was in Aurora
As different as they were, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine law then violence is perfectly natural.
Violence is perfectly natural is a very hot button sentence. Is there violence in the world? Yes. Is it 'perfectly natural'? Hmmm..., when a lion takes down an antelope that's very violent and perfectly natural. When a crazed gunman takes out a movie theater that is very violent and perfectly UNnatural. OK, what does either say about a possible God?
So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all.
And keeping a belief in God doesn't change the suffering either. What's the point?
The second response to suffering is: “While there is a God, he’s not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.”
But that kind of God doesn’t really fit our definition of “God.”
So that thinking hardly helps us with reconciling God and suffering.
The third answer to the worst kind of suffering – seemingly senseless death – is: “God saves some people and lets others die because he favors and rewards good people.”
But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering.
This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow after another, and said “The reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not.”
At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s ”miserable comforters.” The world is too fallen and deeply broken to fall into neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.
Yes but then it is much more easily and better explained to have no invented God at all than a disinterested one.
The fourth answer to suffering in the face of an all-powerful God is that God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him.
This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life.
God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him.
So, we all get continually punished for someone or ones 'turning away' 5000 years ago? At which evolutionary stage did we 'turn away from God'. Australopithecus? Java Man, Lucy?
We were put into this world to live wholly for him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart, physically, socially and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay.
So I am to accept an egotistical God who wants me to wholly live for him. . . what ever that means. Why does God need me to do this? And, the instruction book is a little sketchy! I won't get into the problems with the bible but just mention treatment of women and slaves.
But God did not abandon us. Only Christianity of all the world’s major religions teaches that God came to Earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself, dying on the cross to take the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to Earth to end all suffering without ending us.
But you don't really KNOW that. There is no way to KNOW that God came to earth in Jesus. You were taught that. If Jesus was a complete nut ball and made the whole thing up. . . the story would be exactly the same.
Do you see what this means? We don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be.
It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.
Stating that God allows evil and suffering to continue implies that he could stop it if he wanted to. So he gets himself nailed to a cross to show he cares while suffering and random violence continue unabated. I guess I'm just unimpressed with this effort.
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Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?'” Yes, but it is the half that we need. If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains.
How do you know? We have pretty good brains. What a smug and convenient answer!
What we truly need is what little children need. They can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. They need to know their parents love them and can be trusted. We need to know the same thing about God.
Sure they trust us. . . that's why you can infect their minds with religion at a young age but not after they've reached the age of reason.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Keller.